Reading a play is like listening to an opera on CD. Many would argue that both are best experienced on stage. There is nothing like a live performance, I agree. Yet, no matter how much I love going to the theatre or opera house, reading a play or listening to opera in the comfort of my own home can also be special.
I have never seen any of Craig Higginson’s plays performed live, but I have read most of them, a few several times. As texts, they are deeply satisfying and engage the reader on intellectual and aesthetic levels while giving voice to intimate, troubled spaces of the soul as well as addressing profound socio-political issues. Earlier this year, Wits University Press published three of Higginson’s most acclaimed plays – Dream of the Dog, The Girl in the Yellow Dress, The Imagined Land – in one volume, with a foreword by Jeremy Herrin and an incisive introduction by Michael Titlestad. Herrin speaks of Higginson’s “delicate psychology” in the “theatrical landscape, a place where the contradictions and messiness of contemporary life hold themselves up for inspection.” Titlestad points out “the plays’ common concern with the possibilities and limits of representation… Collectively they refract what has been at stake in this country’s transition, and they do so with a subtlety and insight that will ensure their longevity.” Despite their complexity, the plays are readily accessible.
Dream of the Dog was first written and appeared as a local radio play in 2006, and was rewritten and staged the following year in South Africa before transferring overseas. Its action takes place in KwaZulu-Natal. An aging couple sell their farm to developers. The man in charge of the project turns out to be the son of one of their former workers. As he returns to the place, he brings with him long-supressed memories of violence and death on the farm. The play inspired Higginson’s latest novel, The Dream House (2015), which won the prestigious University of Johannesburg Prize for South African Writing in English this year.
In The Girl in the Yellow Dress, a British woman living in Paris gives English lessons to a Frenchman of African origin. As the young people discuss gramma constructions, their carefully constructed personal stories surface and collide. The play was first performed in Grahamstown in 2010 before conquering stages around the world.
The most recent play in the collection, The Imagined Land, premiered locally last year. It is a stunning work in which a young black scholar decides to write the biography of an elderly white literary icon and simultaneously begins a relationship with the woman’s daughter. The unreliability of memory and the archive, guilt and desire complicate the highly charged action, set in present-day Johannesburg: “Not that I believe a narrative can represent a life. Imagined lands – that is all we are, all we have access to.”
There are no easy resolutions, but grace and redemption seem possible. In Herrin’s words: Higginson’s “characters invariably turn towards the light. They have an inclination for the truth, even if reconciliation might still be beyond them.”
Three Plays: Dream of the Dog, The Girl in the Yellow Dress, The Imagined Land
by Craig Higginson
Wits University Press, 2016
Review first published in the Cape Times, 28 October 2016.